Keaton v. State, CR-14-1570

CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals
Writing for the CourtCOOL, JUDGE
Docket NumberCR-14-1570
PartiesHeather Leavell Keaton v. State of Alabama
Decision Date17 December 2021

Heather Leavell Keaton
v.

State of Alabama

No. CR-14-1570

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

December 17, 2021


Appeal from Mobile Circuit Court (CC-12-3096)

On Return to Second Remand Mc

COOL, JUDGE

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Heather Leavell Keaton was convicted of murder made capital because the victim, Jonathan Chase DeBlase ("Chase"), was less than 14 years of age. See § 13A-5-40(a)(15), Ala. Code 1975. Keaton was also convicted of reckless manslaughter in connection with the death of Chase's sister, Natalie DeBlase ("Natalie"). See § 13A-6-3(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975. Keaton was sentenced to death for her capital-murder conviction and was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for her reckless-manslaughter conviction.

Facts and Procedural History

In December 2010, the partial skeletal remains of Natalie and Chase (hereinafter sometimes collectively referred to as "the children") were discovered in heavily wooded areas in Alabama and Mississippi, respectively. All that remained of Natalie were 68 bones and 3 teeth, and all that remained of Chase were 21 bones and 2 teeth. It was later determined that Natalie had died approximately nine months earlier in March 2010, when she was four years old, and that Chase had died approximately six months earlier in June 2010, when he was three years old. At the time of the children's deaths, Keaton was in a romantic

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relationship with the children's father, John Joseph DeBlase, and was living with DeBlase and the children.

In 2012, DeBlase and Keaton were each charged with three counts of capital murder in connection with the children's deaths -- two counts for intentionally causing the death of a person under 14 years of age, see § 13A-5-40(a)(15), and one count for intentionally causing the death of two or more people by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct, see § 13A-5-40(a)(10), Ala. Code 1975. In November 2014, DeBlase was convicted of all three counts of capital murder and was sentenced to death, and this Court affirmed DeBlase's convictions and death sentence. See DeBlase v. State, 294 So.3d 154 (Ala.Crim.App.2018), cert. denied, 294 So.3d 154 (Ala. 2019), cert. denied, 590 U.S.__, 140 S.Ct. 2678 (2020).

Keaton's trial began in May 2015, and the evidence presented at her trial tended to establish the following facts. Keaton's vision is severely impaired by multiple conditions, including aniridia, a posterior cataract, glaucoma, and nystagmus. However, although the impairment of Keaton's vision is "pretty extreme" (R. 4388), she is able to perform some typical daily activities, including reading text at close distances, writing,

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preparing meals, completing basic household chores, and maneuvering about familiar areas without assistance.

DeBlase and Keaton's relationship began in October 2008 while Keaton was a student at Spring Hill College in Mobile, despite the fact that DeBlase was still married to the children's mother, Corrine Heathcock, at that time. Early in 2009, DeBlase and Heathcock separated, and the children lived in Mobile with DeBlase and his parents following the separation. In March 2009, Keaton took a leave of absence from her studies and began living with DeBlase, his parents, and the children. However, problems subsequently arose between Keaton and DeBlase's mother, Ann DeBlase, regarding the manner in which Keaton disciplined the children. Specifically, Ann testified that she was troubled by an incident in which she saw Keaton put the children "in time-out" (R. 3725) by putting "duct tape on their hands ... behind their back[s] ... where they couldn't move around" (R. 3726) and putting duct tape "on [their] mouth[s]." (R. 3727.) In July 2009, Ann and her husband "told [Keaton] ... she needed to move on because of the way she was treating the [children]" (R. 3730), so Keaton moved to Louisville, Kentucky -- her

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hometown -- and DeBlase and the children remained with DeBlase's parents. However, Keaton returned to Mobile in December 2009, and DeBlase and the children moved out of DeBlase's parents' house at that time and lived with Keaton in various places over the next several months. Around that same time, Keaton became pregnant with DeBlase's child.

During January 2010, DeBlase, Keaton, and the children lived with several of DeBlase's friends, and DeBlase's friends testified to statements Keaton had made that tended to demonstrate her contempt for the children. Specifically, DeBlase's friends testified that Keaton had said she "[did not] want to help [DeBlase] raise [the children]" (R. 3846); that, on separate occasions and to separate people, Keaton had referred to the children as "demon spawns from hell" (R. 3806) and the "spawn of Satan" (R. 3980); that Keaton had said Natalie was "a discipline problem" who "thought she was a princess and ... needed to be taught that she wasn't" (R. 3979); and that Keaton had said she "was concerned that [the children] were going to be jealous of" (R. 3979) Keaton's then unborn child. Testimony from DeBlase's friends also indicated that Keaton had treated

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the children cruelly, including testimony that Keaton had "struck Natalie in the head" with a hairbrush (R. 3697) and had refused to feed the children adequately. Specifically, one of DeBlase's friends testified that he had seen Keaton give the children only "a few little pieces" of lettuce for dinner one night (R. 3659), despite their evident hunger, and that, for breakfast the following morning, Keaton had forced the children to share only a small, single-serving box of cereal. Other friends of DeBlase similarly testified that the children appeared to be underfed and unusually hungry during the early months of 2010. (R. 3814, 3849, 3881.)

Near the end of January 2010, DeBlase, Keaton, and the children moved to Peach Place Inn in Mobile, and DeBlase and Keaton lived there until they were evicted in July 2010. As noted, it was during that period that both the children died, and the manager of Peach Place Inn testified that the children "always looked pale" and "sickly" during their time at Peach Place Inn. (R. 3929.) In addition, one of DeBlase's friends saw DeBlase, Keaton, and Chase at a Wal-Mart discount store in March 2010 -- the month Natalie died -- and that friend testified that Chase "looked

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emergency room sick" at that time but that DeBlase and Keaton did not seem concerned about Chase's health. (R. 3872.)

After DeBlase and Keaton were evicted from Peach Place Inn, they moved to Louisville and lived in an apartment owned by Keaton's mother, Hellena Keaton. Although both the children were dead by that time, Hellena testified that Keaton told her the children were staying with DeBlase's relatives in Las Vegas "until [DeBlase and Keaton] could get settled somewhere." (R. 4539.) However, in November 2010, Hellena overheard part of a telephone conversation between Keaton and DeBlase, and Hellena testified that what she heard from Keaton during the conversation "cause[d] [her] concern." (R. 4547.) Hellena subsequently questioned Keaton about the conversation, and, according to Hellena, Keaton then admitted that Natalie was dead. A few days later, Hellena and her fiancé informed the Louisville Police Department that they "believed that DeBlase had killed his two children" (R. 2873), and they requested a welfare check because they believed Keaton "was being held captive" by DeBlase. (R. 2874.) Later that day, police officers with the Louisville Police Department conducted the welfare check, and, although

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the officers observed no "signs ... of someone being held against their will" (R. 2684), Keaton informed the officers that she wanted to leave the apartment. Thus, because DeBlase was in the apartment at that time, the officers remained in the apartment while Keaton gathered some personal property, and Hellena and her fiancé then drove Keaton to the Louisville Police Department. Later that afternoon, neighbors saw DeBlase leave the apartment with a suitcase.

At the Louisville Police Department, Keaton provided a statement to Sgt. Kevin Thompson, and the audiovisual recording of the statement was played for the jury. During that statement, Keaton admitted that the children had died months earlier, and she provided the following accounts of the children's deaths.

Regarding Natalie's death, Keaton noticed that, a few days before Natalie died, her breath smelled "toxic" and "kind of smelled like death" (State's Exhibit 481 at 24:19-36), and Natalie also began "using the bathroom on herself all the time" and "puked up some black stuff." (Id. at 10:44, 12:18.) Keaton claimed that she urged DeBlase to take Natalie to a hospital but that DeBlase refused, and Keaton claimed that she was

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unable to seek medical attention for Natalie because DeBlase would take her cellular telephone with him anytime he left the apartment and would physically restrain her if she tried to leave the apartment. On March 4, 2010, DeBlase was scheduled to attend classes at Blue Cliff Career College, but Natalie was still "using the restroom on herself" (id. at 26:39), so Keaton "asked [DeBlase] to stay home from school." (Id. at 13:21.) However, DeBlase told Keaton that, "if [Natalie was] giving [her] some problems, ... just ... put some tarp down in the closet and just put [Natalie] in there for a little while" and "put something in front of [the closet] like either a suitcase or the night stand." (Id. at 13:24-45.) Keaton claimed, however, that it was DeBlase who actually put Natalie in the closet because Keaton "couldn't lift [her]." (Id. at 26:00.) Natalie was in the closet "maybe six to eight hours" (id. at 26:33) while DeBlase was at school, and, at some point during that time, Keaton "heard [Natalie] crying 'Daddy, Daddy.'" (Id. at 14:08.) Keaton then went to the closet and told Natalie that DeBlase would "come and check on [her] when he [got] back" (id. at 14:38), at which point Natalie "started to...

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